By Harim Peiris –
President Mahinda Rajapakse has announced that elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) would be conducted in September this year, ahead of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) scheduled for November. The media minister, in a post cabinet meeting press conference has confirmed the same. Prior to the public announcement, political insiders indicate that many private assurances regarding holding the NPC were given to various foreign leaders in return for their political support at crucial times, including to the Japanese and Indian prime ministers, resulting in the former hosting President Rajapakse in Tokyo in style while Sri Lanka’s poor human rights and reconciliation record was being hauled over the coals in Geneva last March and the Indians throwing their considerable political weight behind Sri Lanka hosting the CHOGM, in the face of a spirited attempt by Canada to effect a change, also based on the same human rights and reconciliation issues.
Aside from the political quid pro quos, the Northern Provincial Council and the elections to the same has some serious and significant merits on its own which should figure into government policy making.
1. Democratization after the war
Sri Lanka concluded its war, almost four years ago and normalization of the former conflict areas is an essential component of a successful and durable peace. Sri Lanka’s strength is her democratic system of governance, despite all its flaws and weaknesses and this democracy must extend to the conflict affected people of the North and East in the first instance. Reestablishing democracy would be a key parameter and a measure by which Sri Lanka’s post war progress is measured. Paradoxically there are elected provincial councils in every other part of the country, including in the Eastern Province, but this same right, enjoyed everywhere else in the country is not extended to the Tamil people of the Northern province. Having conducted presidential, general and local government elections in the province, there are no credible or valid technical arguments for not holding the NPC elections, the Elections Commission having indeed confirmed that such elections can be held, with the required notice period of about two and a half months.
2. Cornerstone of India’s Sri Lankan policy
Besides history and geography, India is as crucial to Sri Lanka’s future economic development as much as China is to Hong Kong. With the Indian economy poised to continue on sustained high growth rates, Sri Lanka can and must be integrated into this regional economic growth engine. The 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution came about through the Indo-Lanka accord, which still remains an important cornerstone of India’s Sri Lanka policy. Whatever the antecedents of the Indo Lanka Accord, it did demilitarize every other Tamil armed group in 1987, including TELO, EPRLF and EPDP, bringing them all into the democratic mainstream and isolated, fought and weakened the LTTE. The provincial councils are the basis on which all the former Tamil militant groups are in the democratic mainstream. However in the very province in which they do their politics and have their constituencies, the provincial council is noted for its absence. Its alternative is essentially a former military governor, whom even the Supreme Court has held cannot exercise powers on behalf of the Council.
3. Fulfilling an LLRC mandate
The Government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommended that the political grievances of the ethnic minority communities in the country, most notably the Tamil community, congregated in the North be accommodated. The devolution of power being the principal method through which this can be done. It is surely clear, that the Tamil people are alienated from the Sri Lankan State and it is in Sri Lanka’s own interest to seek to be inclusive and tolerant rather than exclusionary and intolerant. The latter breeds’ resentment and eventually political violence, as we have witnessed through almost thirty years of civil conflict.
JHU and NFF oppose devolution and the NPC
In the context of the above, it is disappointing to note, that Government ministers Champika Ranawaka and Wimal Weerawansa, respectively leaders of the relatively small JHU and NFF components of the UPFA Administration, publicly and vociferously opposing the 13th amendment and democracy in the North through the Northern Provincial Council election.
There is a cardinal principal of governance known as “collective cabinet responsibility” the government must speak with one voice. This is not an academic nicety, it is crucial to our international credibility and domestic policy clarity. Undoubtedly democratic norms provide for diverse opinions, but within the ruling UPFA and amongst its cabinet ministers, surely the forum for such discussions and arriving at consensus would be either cabinet meetings, UPFA constituent party leaders meetings or the UPFA parliamentary group meetings or indeed bi lateral discussions with President Rajapakse, but surely not public meetings and public opposition to stated presidential policies. Such actions lend credence to the president’s political opponents and detractors who claim that such public opposition, by the President’s own ideological allies is actually at the behest of the president, to contrive a reason to not proceed with an election, which the UPFA is almost guaranteed to lose to the TNA.
It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest and the progress of post war reconciliation between her diverse ethnic communities that democracy in the former conflict areas of the North be reestablished and the elected representatives of the ethnic minorities in the North be provided with the same provincial devolution that has been accorded to the rest of the country, including the former conflict zones of the East.
* Harim Peiris‘s writings may be accessed online http://harimpeiris.com